Counting Your Metric Good Fortune

By The Metric Maven

James Panero, a person who likes to think of himself as the “preeminent voice of American cultural conservatism” demonstrated his reactionary bone fides (that’s Latin you know) by attacking the metric system on world metrology day in the Wall Street Journal. The essay is thankfully paywalled. The value should be meted in a negative denomination, like -$1.00, as you will want your money back after you’ve read the essay. Apparently, realizing that some of his readers, might not have the patience to read, he explained his views to Tucker Carlson on Fox News in a video. Panero is, of course, horrified that the metric system came out of the French Revolution (despite the fact Englishman John Wilkins originated the metric system in 1668) , which sanctimonious “science communicators” also need to actually research. In Panero’s view even:

Worse than the abandonment of human measure is the imposition of decimal division. From calendars to clocks, French radicals went all in for 10. That works well for abstract calculations, as with dollars and cents, but not when measuring things in the real world. The Romans counted in 12s, as in the hours on a clock and the inches in a foot. The Babylonians used 60, from which we get minutes, seconds and degrees. A simple system of 8 still exists in our ounces—and in computer bytes. Eight, 12 and 60 divide easily into halves and quarters, even thirds, while a decimal system does not. A third of a meter is roughly 33.33 centimeters, a third of a foot exactly 4 inches.

James Panero, an ersatz version of the ersatz writer John Bemelmans Marciano, demonstrates the rational superiority of pre-metric measures by expounding on their divine complexity. The Romans, of course, did not “count in 12’s,” yes they did have 12’s on the clocks they inherited from earlier civilizations, but they counted in tens. I will refer to Wikipedia, which states:

Roman numerals are essentially a decimal or “base 10” number system. Powers of ten – thousands, hundreds, tens and units – are written separately, from left to right, in that order. Different symbols are used for each power of ten, but a common pattern is used for each of them.

So, no they didn’t use 12 for counting. But he is right, they did have 12 inches in a Roman foot. Which is a point I will get back to, after not ending this sentence in a preposition. So he argues the merits of 60, 12, and 8, and in the only irrelevant cliche metric antagonists can ever seem to offer, he reacts with horror that 1/3 of a meter is 33.33 centimeters. I react with horror that he did not use 333 millimeters, but that is a tell of ignorance so bad he would be quickly vanquished from any poker game.

So he is impressed that 12 and 60 both can be divided by half and thirds? Well they also can be divided by 2, 3, 4, and 6 (not counting 1 and the number itself). That’s just four factors for 12! Why 60 can be divided by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30! Wow that’s ten factors. With just the right amount of ignorance about a subject, in this case the metric system, I’m sure our heroic cultural critic thinks I’m making his point for him. He does not realize that when using metric to build a dwelling, the basic module is 400 mm, which can be divided by 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 16, 20, 25, 40, 50, 80, 100 and 200. That is 13 factors not counting 1 and 400. In other words, by actually planning and evaluating the arithmetic chosen, metric has easier usage than units that have been selected by the magical method of technical or market Darwinism. Panero’s preference is clear:

Nearly all customary units derive in some way from use. The acre was the amount of land a yoke of oxen could till in a day. The fathom is 6 feet, the span of the arms, useful when pulling up the sounding line of a depth measure. The meter is unfathomable, ……..

As Penero is so conservative that he certainly must use oxen on his farm, perhaps an acre makes sense. I might point out that a fathom is also about 2 meters. People can generally count by groups of 2s. You know, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 meters ……. which is close enough metrology for a “cultural critic” who uses oxen. But the “meter is unfathomable”?—I think I just pointed out it completely is fathomable in 2 meter increments.

The topic of this essay is counting. Put simply, it is the advantage that is obtained when a counting system has the same base as a measuring system. Take the Romans and their 12 inches in a Roman foot, yet, they used a counting system based on ten, and used feet with 12 inches. We currently use a base 10 system which uses 0-9 to represent numbers. If we want to use 12 as a base, we need to add symbols, perhaps a and b, like hexadecimal does. So it would be 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, a and b. So we would have a = 10 and b = 11 and 10 as 12. I’m sure it will be perfectly logical to understand that page a is old page 10, in all the newly numbered books in our duodecimal utopia, and page b is now old page 11. The next page is of course 10, which is old twelve. It all makes sense now!—the simplicity is obvious!

People say they want base 12 counting, but don’t really understand what that means. What they actually mean is the use of a grouping of base 10 integer numbers by 12. In other words they want integer groupings that are easy to divide with decimal numerical representation! When discussing small numbers of items we often just use direct base 10 values. For instance, we purchase a six-pack, or eight-pack, or 12-pack or 24-pack. Those are a mouth full, but we live with the long designations.

We also have collective pet names for useful integer groupings. For instance we purchase a dozen eggs, but not 0.99 dozen eggs. We would reject the non-integer number of eggs as one is clearly broken. What happens at a grocery store when you select a dozen eggs, you, or often the cashier, checks to make sure one of them is not broken. A dozen is 12 integer items, period. We have created more pet names using this pet name. For instance a square dozen is a gross or 144 items. A great gross is a cubic dozen or 1728 items. A small gross? That is ten dozen!—or 120 items. This is not a measurement system, as it only contains groupings of integer values. A googol is a pet name for 10100. These are useful values for dividing up integer objects. In the case of metric construction, the millimeter is the integer value, and a grouping of 400 millimeters is a module–with 13 factors.

We have collective nouns for animals without a clear numerical designation, such as a murder of crows, which I guess means more than 1, as a group is two or more according to dictionary definitions.

There is a clear advantage to using base ten for counting, and also for a measurement system, as there is no numerical “pet name” conversion. The grouping is the same for the integer part of a measurement value, and for the decimal part of the measurement value. 123.465 meters has a grouping of 100, with a grouping of 10, and then one for the integer part. The decimal part has groupings of 1/10, 1/100, 1/1000. They are all multiples of base 10. Now if we use a length of 123 yards, 2 feet, 7 inches and 2 barleycorns, we have reverted to other groups or pet names. We have three feet in a yard, and 12 inches in a foot and 3 barleycorns to an inch, the cognitive confusion is almost optimum, and the usefulness minimum when compared to a consistent grouping. I would think this would be obvious to a grade school student, but not perhaps to a Wall Street Journal cultural critic.

He chortles with a furtive shot at the redefinition of the Kilogram, but also uses a very, very high pitched dog whistle:

With the European Union being cut down to size, can we hope for a return to British imperial units, which the U.K. was forced to abandon after it joined? A pint’s a pound, the world around, and it beats walking the Planck.

As I point out in my essay How Did We Get Here?, the origin of A Pint’s a Pound the World Around comes from the lines of a 19th century song with these lyrics:

For the Anglo-Saxon race shall rule
The earth from shore to shore
Then down with every “metric” scheme
Taught by the foreign school

A perfect inch, a perfect pint.
The Anglo’s honest pound
Shall hold their place upon the earth
Till Time’s last trump shall sound!

It’s quite a celebration of colonialism and racism Mr Penero. As a cultural critic, you should be aware of from whence this has come. And by the way, the pint is not a pound the world around.

Pet names for units can be fun though. For instance a mouth is about 3 inches, and a foot is 12 inches, so a foot in the mouth would be 15 inches, or one Penero.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.